After finishing her BA in English with Film at King’s, Lea decided to stay for another year to pursue a Master‘s in Shakespeare Studies and the Principal‘s Global Leadership Award. She loves the Victorian age, black coffee, and hot sauce; and her goal is to establish a programme that establishes access to higher education for working class kids.
[Featured Image: An illustration of five different women holding up signs such as ‘Girl Power!’. Source.]
Whilst patriarchal oppression is the default state many female small-town residents unconsciously accept and internalise, there are also shining examples of women this system has failed to intimidate. This failure to make them adhere to the status quo of the tranquil community life has had both positive and negative effects of the lives of Anja, Laura, and Sophie. Whilst they agree that it is a daily struggle to put up with harassment, humiliation, ignorance and the supposedly blissful acceptance of female inferiority within their community, they continue to fight for their cause. However, the harassment in response to their outspokenness and being labelled as the stereotypical “angry feminist” which is constantly ridiculed have affected them as well. When I asked the three whether they would call themselves a feminist, Anja and Laura negated whilst Sophie also backtracked after a short reflection on her exuberantly affirmative response. Laura rejects the multitude of negative implications and expectations publicly connected to the term. She does not want to label herself a feminist, as long as the environment she lives in continues to be stuck in its old thinking patterns that generalise and brand all feminists as men haters. Female outspokenness is inevitably associated with aggressiveness and rants, wherefore many stop to listen as soon as the keyword drops in a conversation. Since she sees communication of views and values as a crucial preamble to finding likeminded women with whom she can form networks and raise awareness, Laura carefully avoids branding herself as anything but a liberal, open-minded woman outside of her inner circle. Her activism mostly takes place on social media and specifically Instagram, which she uses to express her thoughts and frustration about men, misogyny, and the toxic treatment of female bodies. Nudity and explicit gestures in combination with statements she’d be willing but not able to communicate in most conversations with others are her way of raising awareness and battling the patriarchy online. Since many girls living in her area look for inspiration to form opinions online, she hopes to be a wakeup call that encourages them to be their best, empowered self and be in love with the strong and beautiful women they are in the light of the body positivity movement. Anja and Sophie also experienced the negative power of the terms feminist and feminism whenever they left the safe space of their circle of friends or, in Sophie’s case, the pronouncedly more liberal, equality-minded, and genderqueer bubble of the metropolis she fled to. They focus their energy less on social media but real-life projects and day-to-day practices that help to undermine the prevalent men-benefitting status quo. The hate and negative feedback Laura receives from men and women of both her local and online community, which overlap, is insulting and degrading. Except for catcalling, most of the slut-shaming happens online due to the protection of the digital safe barrier behind which her critics likely disappear once they have shot their shot. Nonetheless, the other women also struggle with the responses of Fröndenberg’s community to their efforts. Even though she loves to spend time with her family, Sophie’s trips back to her hometown are always a little reluctant. Soon after moving away to attend university, she realised that she had grown up in a toxic and misogynistic setting that had distorted her idea of feminism and equality. According to her, her first trips home felt surreal and the conversations with old friends and even her sisters were forced and superficial. Steering away from gossip towards apparently more controversial topics such as the lack of feminist resources and queer safe spaces in the area rings subconscious alarm bells and the desire to uphold the unquestioned patriarchal status quo shuts down the conversation rapidly. If it does get a hearing, feminist discourse is often ridiculed. This has nothing to do with how overall well-educated or open-minded the conversationalist is, which shows again that the patriarchal structures are so deeply internalised by the locals that it does not occur to them that their anti-feminist bias is questionable. Thus, Anja always proceeds with caution when she confronts (oftentimes male) colleagues by highlighting the inappropriateness of their misogynist comments and jokes à la “my wife is good for cooking, that’s why I have her”. Staff room misogyny is shockingly common, she says, and through her public engagement with local politics that highlights the importance of female leaders and fights patriarchal thought, she is oftentimes belittled as “that feminist teacher”. Therefore, she chooses to distance herself from the feminist label to limit the negative effect it has on the local perception of her as a teacher, a politically engaged citizen, and as a female individuum. Nonetheless, her private life is very much defined by her political views and she attempts to surround herself with as much positive female influence as possible. She also encouraged every guest present at her wedding this summer, regardless of their gender, to catch her bridal bouquet. Whilst she sees herself forced to tolerate gender-based judgement that reinforces patriarchal ideas at work, she never fails to challenge it and openly rejects it whenever she leaves the small-town community bubble connected to her workplace. However, she reckons that her under-the-radar feminism at work would not nearly be as effective as outlined in the previous article if she’d label herself as a feminist. That would only lead to her being muted and shelved with everyone else that has a different opinion than that of the general public.
Since the small-town mind is still obsessed with the idea of labelling everything, one can only be either a part of the community or “one of those notorious feminists”. Since the latter are shunned and banned from being heard lest they challenge the social status quo, it might be time for a new label until the community is ready to move on towards a healthy mindset that cherishes and empowers each of its members equally. When I told the three that I decided to label myself as a “Gender-Equalist” they immediately identified with that term and decided to adopt it for the time being. The term moves away from the idea of “only” empowering women and signals an openness, inclusion rather than exclusion. In the end, feminism is an important steppingstone on the path to a level of equality that is supportive, fosters thriving debate and political discourse, and enables everyone to be the best version of themselves regardless of their gender, faith, heritage, social status, or sexual orientation. Perhaps the right way for navigating feminist discourse in Fröndenberg’s inherently patriarchal social system is not the stern and “aggressive” call for more female opportunism, but a sidestep from these practices that promote similar thoughts under a differently labelled guise. What the small-towns need are Gender-Equalists, courageous women who fight for their cause and establish a network that nurtures feminist thought and promotes equality to liberate everyone who is currently marginalised by the alpha males who think they deservedly run the town. It appears to me that I had just talked to three of them who, perhaps also with the help of the newly elected first female mayor, will do great things for the community and hold the power to encourage others to follow their lead towards future equality.
Many thanks to Anja Laux, Laura K., and Sophie Domres for their openness, willingness to engage critically with their feminist heritage, and taking the time to talk to me. May you inspire many others to follow in your footsteps.